Vladimir Rubtsov: The Tunguska Mystery. 318 p. Springer 2009.
Review © Norman Sperling, February 22, 2013
The explosion of a large meteor above Chelyabinsk, on the same day as asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed Earth, has brought back the riddle of the Tunguska event.
In 1908, far to the east of the Ural Mountains, over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia, something - an icy, rocky asteroid or comet? - slammed into Earth's atmosphere, exploded in the air, flattened a forest, and triggered unusually bright and colorful skies over much of the world for many days.
The site is terribly remote. Communication and transportation were primitive in the terminal times of the tsarist empire. After World War I, the new Soviet regime clamped down on communications with non-Communists.
Very little news about the Tunguska explosion leaked out through the Iron Curtain. A few Soviet scientists explored, but hardly any of their data reached the West. Eyewitness reports were gathered, but we didn't see them. Important scientists declared solutions, but we only heard their answers, not their supporting data.
The absence of scientific data opened infinite possibilities for speculation. Creative minds responded by suggesting a colorful variety of explanations. Some of those caught the public imagination.
Unbeknownst to the West, much the same was happening in the Soviet Union. By selecting favorite reports, theorists put together plausible narratives which hung together only as long as all other data were ignored.
This grated on a lot of Soviet scientists. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev loosened the repression. Professional and amateur scientists responded creatively by founding the Independent Tunguska Exploration Group in 1958. These days the fashionable name for this centuries-old practice is "Citizen Science".
Investigators gathered information to plug holes in previous work. We hardly ever heard their results. In this book, an ITEG stalwart describes their research, findings, and speculations.
The story is FAR more complex than I had imagined. Exploration found a great deal more information than I had ever heard of, much of it scientifically strong. Practically all of it appears to contradict some theory or other. Several fairly strong solutions have been proposed, accounting for large portions of the observations. No solution, however, has yet accounted for all the credible data.
So this book is a superb example of exploratory science, and a superb example of a scientist who understands how much he doesn’t understand.
The most frequent suggestions are comets or meteoroids or asteroids. One huge problem is that our concepts of these have changed often, and radically, over the last 100 years, so the proposal means different things to different people at different times. Recent understandings relate comets to primitive chondrite meteoroids, which are extremely similar to asteroid types C, P, D, and K. Those meteoroids are probably chips of those asteroids. If they have surface ice, they appear as "comets". The Sun can vaporize surface ice while leaving ice inside.
Yet many details, from the exact pattern of the fallen trees, to eyewitnesses describing one object approaching from the south while a second one came from the east, to chemical traces (ytterbium!), don't seem to concur.
The suggestion that appears to satisfy the most data - still not all - posits 2 huge and powerful spacecraft, both turning to converge at the explosion site, and only one continuing westward from there. Science fiction fans like this scenario a lot better than most scientists do, but it satisfies more data than any other.
The comet concept satisfies the second-greatest quantity of data.
Now that this book has taught me a great deal more about Tunguska science, I am no longer confident about any one explanation. Rubtsov is right: we don't know enough. Previous such cases include:
• discovering the constancy of the speed of light, before Relativity;
• Auguste Comte's declaration that the composition of remote stars must remain forever unknown, before spectroscopy;
• noticing fundamental parallels in living things, like backbones, before Evolution.
Enjoy this book for its rich scientific and historical narrative, its scientific rigor, and its logical structure. The book is well written, well edited, and well produced. There's just enough Russian syntax to suggest local flavor. But if you want The Answer to what hit Tunguska, it's not here, nor anywhere else. Yet. Check back later.
J. Allan Danelek: The Great Airship of 1897: a Provocative Look at the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History. Adventures Unlimited Press 2009.
review © Norman Sperling, February 10, 2013
A mysterious bright light in the night sky sparked this big flap at the end of the 1800s. It was unexpected and unexplained. Reports grossly contradict one another, so investigators can favor very different inferences, interpretations, and explanations simply by selecting different reports to prefer.
In the 1800s, no one considered the light to be a space ship from another planet. Paranormal boosters have made that case more recently. Since this book's author energetically investigates paranormal and Fortean matters, I was all prepared for the author to go Paranormal.
He never did. The one place where the paranormal is invoked by others, Danelek dismisses it tersely. This book has nothing at all to do with the paranormal. Every explanation is purely naturalistic. Danelek invokes real physics, real engineering, and common human nature. At every turn, Danelek reports what records show, and points out contradictions and gaping ignorance. He discusses assorted possibilities.
He selects reports that can be strung together into a consistent story, and says that's why he prefers those. The data are so sketchy that there is lots of room for speculation. Danelek offers several speculations, but clearly labels each one as it comes up. Danelek builds a case that it was a searchlight coming from a lighter-than-air dirigible-type airship.
Astronomer Charles Burckhalter, among others, said the "searchlight" was actually the brilliant planet Venus, which dominated the western sky in late 1896 and early 1897.
Danelek ties his case together in a fictionalized story, which he blatantly labels as fiction at both its start and its end. A few readers may deplore putting fiction in this book, but as long as the reader can tell what's fiction, that's fine. In fact, my motive to read this book was to see if I could adapt part of its story for astronomical fiction that I'm writing. I can.
The illustrations are quite clear and plausible. The editing is not as sharp as the writing. Several misspellings got into print. A sharper editor would have squelched several redundancies.
Overall, this is an interesting, entertaining, and rational book. It shines some light on a bright light of long ago.
Norman Sperling, December 29, 2011
Physical evidence, scientifically analyzed, reveals reality far better than anecdotes, story-telling, and wishful thinking.
Proponents of the "Yeti" (Himalayan "abominable snowman") touted a finger taken from a "Yeti" hand displayed at the Pangboche Temple’s monastery in Nepal in 1958. If the Yeti is a real species, that wouldn't contradict Science, but it would add a fascinating complication to the complex story of humanity's heritage.
The finger's DNA has now been analyzed. It's human.
The news report pointedly doesn't state *which* finger it is, but I have my suspicions.
© Norman Sperling, December 8, 2011
In tradition and much testing, the practice of "acupuncture" includes the principle of "meridians". The same is true, unsurprisingly, of skeptics' analyses. A lot of those analyses end up confused, because, skeptical magazines report, they find a weak positive correlation for acupuncture, though strictly negative for meridians.
Skeptics conventionally address "claims". If they can discredit a component of the claim - like meridians - they consider the claim rejected. They consider "acupuncture" as a single claim.
But if you scrupulously separate out the components of tests, as reported in skeptical magazines, acupuncture appears to have some positive pain-killing effects, whereas meridians don't seem to mean anything. So, puncture works, acu doesn't.
I don't care what's claimed. I care how Nature works. The claims and their testing merely serve to supply more evidence of that. If "puncture" appears to be a mild analgesic, investigate if that can be used medically. If "meridians" are nonsense, say just that, without smearing something real and potentially useful.
If skeptics could swallow evidence contrary to their expectation, they'd demonstrate that Science is the standard, rather than rhetoric. The public would view skeptics as far more reasonable.
© Norman Sperling, August 20, 2011
One of the most interesting and scientifically-important people I ever met was the independent scientist William R. Corliss. Since the 1970s, he was by far the world's finest collector, categorizer, and ranker of scientific anomalies. He made himself the world's greatest authority on things that don't fit the paradigms of the times.
I had a long meeting with him in 1988, and corresponded several times with him afterward. He was always a scrupulous scientist and a quiet, reserved, proper gentleman. Bill died of a heart attack on July 8th, age 84.
Science always notices a lot of things, and it takes time to fit these pieces into the puzzle - sometimes months, sometimes centuries. Until they fit, the odder pieces are anomalies. Narrow-minded swallowers of paradigms-they-are-taught ignore them whenever possible, and pooh-pooh them when they're brought up. Broader-minded investigators of Nature comb through them for items that might, now, fit; or items that now point more clearly in some novel direction. Yet others (including most astronomers who mentioned Corliss) browse through anomalies simply because they're neat, or fun, or inspiring, or awesome, or remind us that we don't know everything and may never.
Bill spent enormous numbers of hours combing scientific literature for such anomalies, often driving to Washington, DC, to use the Library of Congress and other scientific libraries. He was looking for evidence about how Nature works.
Just what constituted an anomaly changed with the times. Early on, when plate tectonics was the "challenger" paradigm, he sought out nuggets that supported it; later, when it became the "dominant" paradigm, he sought items to the contrary. He supported Chip Arp's challenge to interpreting galaxies' red shifts as distance markers. He was very slow to accept that Arp seems to be, simply, wrong ... but he always followed the evidence. Several items that Corliss plucked from scientific literature surely are mistaken, but more are valid, though (as with everything else in Science) subject to refinement and reinterpretation.
Bill compiled his findings into vast topical compendia. Most of the drawings were commissioned from geologist/illustrator Jack Holden, who is also a JIR contributor, though Corliss and Holden never met. A few of his books were marketed rather widely by large publishing companies. All the rest were published by The Sourcebook Project, which was Bill, his wife Virginia, and their barn. We retail several of his books.
Bill was best known as an "anomalist", most praised by the Society for Scientific Exploration, and bloggers of the "unknown". He had many fans among seekers of cryptids, UFOs, and other things beyond Science.
Bill experienced organized Skeptics as debunkers, enforcers for mainstream-paradigm-as-law, and thus enemies of anomalies. He definitely recognized that some claims are indeed bunk, deserving and needing debunking.
The scientific establishment usually ignored him. A few, like Joe Ashbrook, acted visibly uneasy at the mention of his compilations. That always confused me, because all Bill quoted were scientific publications.
He read JIR, and quoted it in his bimonthly newsletter, always with tongue pointedly in cheek.
Bill lived on a farm north of Baltimore. He was a man of his times: though he did commission a website for his wares, the torrent of spam scared him away from eMail. His website doesn't take credit cards, and directs customers to mail checks. Every communication I got from him over several decades was typed on a typewriter, not a word-processor.
I hope ways are found to preserve his files and keep his work available to the public.
© Norman Sperling, August 4, 2011
3 articles in 3 days have exposed hoaxes and scams.
A bizarre story claiming that users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser are a lot dumber than users of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, was unmasked in a day or 2. Wired's Epicenter reveals the hoax and sparks its perpetrator to claim it was a joke.
The horrifying "collar bomb" in Sydney, Australia, was a hoax. Who concocted it?
For 140 years, Scots have been proud of their unbelievably-loyal dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Reuters reports that it was a "scam to lure tourists".
Do the media you read tell you the initial claim, but not that it was a hoax? Time to smarten your news sources.
© Norman Sperling, June 9, 2011
The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.
© Norman Sperling, May 15, 2011
Some substances that are usually regarded as having no effect actually do have effects.
* Water, as in homeopathic treatments.
* Placebos, as in medical tests and treatments.
I have seen homeopathic treatments strongly criticized as being useless and having no effect, because they’re “only” water. Yet water itself has many effects.
* Peeing usually makes you feel better.
* Drinking a lot of water is recommended for several medical and nutritional situations. It is suspected to dilute or flush precipitates that would otherwise form painful kidney stones, for example.
* And drinking a lot is often recommended in treating colds and other illnesses.
So plain old water, whether labeled homeopathic or not, CAN have effects.
“Placebo” is Latin for “I make you feel good”. That’s an effect, not the absence of one. (By that centuries-old definition, boyfriends and girlfriends are placebos.)
In the last half century, “placebo”’s definition and applications have changed importantly several times, but discussions rarely specify which version is meant. Always check just what speakers and writers mean by the term.
Placebos are rarely neutral and rarely have zero effects. Many different substances that have been used as placebos have known effects.
* Sugar, as in “sugar pills”, makes people feel better. Huge quantities of sugary treats are consumed because they make people feel better. Sugar levels in the blood affect athletic and intellectual performance as well as mood. Mary Poppins taught us that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. Sugar is NOT neutral!
* In some cases, the sugar is lactose, which often has major detrimental effects. For 30% of American adults, and 70% of the world’s adults, lactose intolerance generates explosive, compelling diarrhea. A good reference is Steve Carper’s Milk is Not for Every Body, published by Facts on File, 1995.
* For testing against new medicines, several other substances are combined to mimic known effects of the tested substance. Some of these qualities make people feel better, some make people feel worse. They are NOT neutral!
Scholarly books on placebos:
* Anne Harrington, ed: The Placebo Effect – an Interdisciplinary Exploration. Harvard U Pr 1997. RM331.P53 1999
* Daniel E. Moerman: Meaning, Medicine, and the “Placebo” Effect. Cambridge U Pr. R726.5.M645 2002. Says the effect is in the meaning.
* Arthur K. Shapiro: The Powerful Placebo: From Ancient Priest to Modern Physician. JHU Pr. RM331.S53 1997. scholarly source for Thompson & Moerman.
* W. Grant Thompson: The Placebo Effect and Health. Prometheus 320p. R726.5.T488 2005. excellent survey. Use the effect!
For Northern Californians who are skeptical of pseudoscience, the SkeptiCal conference returns bigger and better. It will be held at the Berkeley Marina Doubletree Hotel on May 29, 2011. Last year's conference sold out past capacity, so please buy your tickets as soon as possible to ensure a seat!
You can register, and find much more information, at www.skepticalcon.org.
Speakers this year:
* Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, who leads the struggle to teach Evolution, despite so-called "Creationists"
* Dr. Bob Carroll, creator of the Skeptic’s Dictionary
* Skeptologists Yau-Man Chan (a Survivor) and Mark Edward
* UC Santa Cruz Professor of Psychology Dr. Anthony Pratkanis
* Pacific Institute President Dr. Peter Gleick
and many more. Other activities include an on-site lunch and a Skeptics-in-the-Pub event.
Options this year include a T-shirt and an on-site lunch at the Doubletree. If you don't choose the on-site lunch, there are many great restaurants within a short drive.
For more information, and to purchase tickets and a SkeptiCal '11 T-shirt, please visit www.skepticalcon.org.
Ways to follow the SkeptiCal Conference online:
Skeptics Around the Bay
© Norman Sperling, May 1, 2011
SkeptiCal is a joint effort of the Sacramento and Bay Area Skeptics. I joined the Bay Area Skeptics about 1983, shortly after moving to California. I've served on the Board since 1988, and have been vice chair for about 20 years, except for a year and a half as chair in the early '90s.
BAS has used several modes to share and spread our views. We've done newsletters and a website (baskeptics.org). We've had lots of local meetings with speakers. Our people are active in TAM and CSI, and especially in online media like blogs and podcasts. We've joined some larger efforts, like the recent one pointing out the absence of medicine in the virtually pure water sold as homeopathic "medicine".
Trends over the last 3 decades:
* Harsh voices have left and the group is now very nice.
* Good meeting rooms are harder and harder to find, and attendance is irregular.
* Print media have declined, and online media have risen, at least as much in skepticism as elsewhere.
* Endless gobs of bunk keep befouling and fleecing the public, so there's always too much to address.
Our most successful recent enterprise came a year ago, when we teamed up with Sacramento's skeptics to run a daylong regional convention. It sold out, so we set up an overflow room with live video. We had great speakers and discussion leaders. Lots of folks met kindred spirits. Almost everybody had a wonderful time and said we should do it again. Hence this year's gathering, in a nicer venue with twice the capacity.
I'll be retailing from a table in the main event room. In addition to JIR and its newest anthologies, I'll also sell off part of my personal library on skeptical topics. Some are bunk and some debunk. Pretty soon I won't have much shelf space, so those books have to find new homes.
© Norman Sperling, February 19, 2011
While the Skeptics' movement, as official organizations of people, only dates from the 1970s, there have been skeptics of pseudoscience for hundreds of years. One of the most interesting was a prickly Victorian named Augustus De Morgan.
De Morgan responded tartly in the Athenaeum magazine to assorted balderdash he read in a wide variety of books, and to letters which people sent him. His writings for the Athenaeum were rather like those of some bloggers today. He had a short fuse. Politeness was not a priority.
After he died, his widow published De Morgan's ripostes as one of the first Skeptics' books, A Budget of Paradoxes. I treasure my copy of the second edition, published in 2 volumes in 1915.
I got them from the estate of Joe Ashbrook, editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. Joe's signature inside the front cover says he bought it on June 24, 1935, when the book was 20 years old, and Joe was 17. Over the rest of his career he wrote a great many interesting notes in it. Joe especially used the book's many short biographies; back then, we didn't have the research resources we have now.
But the Budget only publishes De Morgan's retorts. The first half of each dialog isn't there, and can only partly be inferred from what is. Back when De Morgan wrote, and when the Budget was published, there was a perfect reason for that: the copyrights to the other side of the dialog didn't belong to De Morgan, and the writers were usually hostile to him.
Now those copyrights have long expired. And now a huge amount of Victorian text is on-line and otherwise more accessible.
So now that it is possible, somebody should put together the complete version: the claims as well as the disproofs, the bunk as well as the debunk.
It could be published in electronic formats. It could also be printed-on-demand so no publisher has to bet how many others will want to buy a copy, after I buy the first one.
What similar worthy projects, never done before, are now doable?